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Excavation at Vero Man site reaches a critical layer

STORY BY MICHELLE GENZ (Week of March 20, 2014)

As a manicurist at the Orchid Island Barber Shop, Vickie Ledlow knows all about chipping and flaking. Like an amateur anthropologist, she can tell people’s habits just from looking at their fingertips – gardening, typing, washing too many dishes.

On her days off, Ledlow’s studies turn serious, and the flaking that interests her is from a pastime thousands of years old. Flakes are chips that flew off rock or coral when ancient people struck them to make points for their spears.

Ledlow, a lifelong collector of fossils and artifacts, is screening for flakes at the Vero Man site, an Ice Age excavation going on near the Vero airport.

Every Tuesday and Sunday, Ledlow slips on gloves to protect her French manicure, and arms herself with a magnifier and tweezers. She and other volunteers sift through buckets of dirt from a giant mound they call Mount Vero. The dirt pile is the “overburden” dug out from a nearby seven-foot deep, 20-yard long hole that is the work station for a team of archaeologists.

There, after two months of scraping at dusty sediment, young scientists have finally reached an ancient band of earth called the Melbourne layer, last exposed to the Florida sun thousands of years ago.

Buried within it may be contextual traces of plant, animal and especially human life that can confirm a theory laid out a hundred years ago, when the site first yielded the partial remains of up to five humans alongside those of Ice Age animals.

It was a stunning discovery and one that shattered the prevailing theory of North America’s population by humans. The find implied the earliest residents of Vero came here not 6,000 years ago but more than twice that.  But the human remains, lumped together as Vero Man, ended up coated in varnish or soaked in paraffin, and they could never be carbon-dated.

“It’s one of the most interesting sites in North America, and among those with the greatest potential to answer questions of not only what happened here, but when did humans arrive,” says Andy Hemmings, the director of the site. An archaeologist with a Ph.D. from the University of Florida, Hemmings is now a professor at Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute in Erie, PA. Mercyhurst is supplying the brainpower behind the Vero Man dig.

If human bones are found that prove to be 10,000 to 13,000 years old, the site could “rocket to the top of the list of informative sites,” Hemmings says.

And about four miles from the site, according to amateur fossil hunter James Kennedy, he found Ice Age mammal bone that may have been etched in the same era that the animals lived. If authentic, as testing has thus far not disproven, the etching further validates the theory that humans occupied Florida in the Ice Age.   

Hemmings says what makes Vero rich in Ice Age remains is the alkaline soil, due to an underlying shell layer that has preserved material better than in more acidic soils elsewhere. 

Of the 30 or so late Pleistocene and Paleoindian projects in North America, Hemming says, “less than five will have much in the way of organic preservation,” he says. “The species richness here is approaching being genuinely unique.”

So far, the site has yielded a couple of complete ladybugs, beetle parts and the head of a big ant.

“We’ve been finding lots of seeds and bits of bone and artifacts,” says Hemmings. “It’s essentially fresh stuff and it’s very old, like having Prince Albert in a can.”

They have also found a couple of small fragments of the skull of a mastodon or mammoth, as well as a piece of ivory.

“We’re very excited,” says Hemmings. “But finding those little scraps in a meaningful context, that’s what blows the lid off for us.”

As the experts toil nearby, Ledlow’s fellow amateurs range from Indian River Charter High School students to an industrious 94-year-old woman. While some work at smaller tasks, most shovel dirt from Mount Vero into buckets and dump it into suspended trays with screens on the bottom. Shaking out the sand leaves bits of shell, rock, and sticks behind. That’s what the volunteers scrutinize.

Other volunteers serve as greeters, giving tours to the steady stream of visitors dropping by.

“Everyone’s excited about what they’re going to be finding, and they ask a lot of questions,” says Ledlow.

“It’s community archaeology,” says Sandra Rawls, the site’s volunteer coordinator and a past president of the Old Vero Ice Age Sites Committee, or OVIASC, which raised the funds to do the dig. It officially began in mid-January.

OVIASC mobilized when the county proposed installing a stormwater treatment center that would have poured tons of concrete over the Vero Man site.

The relief canal was dug at the start of the last century to drain what was essentially the swamp that was Vero Beach. The canal cut directly through two creeks that once flowed together toward the ocean. The site of the excavation is a ridge that rose above the creeks’ intersection. It was in the wall of the canal that Vero Man remains were found. Hemmings postulates that Ice Age humans likely camped out on the nearby ridge, poised to hunt the animals coming to drink in the water below.

Scientists disagreed as to whether the Vero Man remains were found in the intact Ice Age soil layer, or whether they had been deliberately buried in that layer several thousand years later. The dispute was never resolved.

Of the dozens of human bones found at the Vero Man site, some ended up at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville; the only skull found is believed to be in a box somewhere in the Smithsonian, last seen in 1971, Hemmings said.

Last week, working under a long white tent, archaeologists finally reached the critical layer they believe was exposed during the Ice Age, and where more remains may lie. Prior to backhoes digging the broad rectangular pit in January, coring with geoprobes showed intact deposits of paleosol, the old ground surface.

Covering the pit with a tent known as a weather port, workers installed drainage to keep rain water from damaging the site; rain is the reason the project has to be wrapped up by May, when the summer downpours and tropical weather systems can descend.

Inside, the archaeologists have marked off quadrants of earth with string. Kneeling over ledges carved in the dirt, they meticulously brush the soil millimeter by millimeter into a dustpan, searching for bits that could be of interest.

As for volunteers, Ledlow considers herself “very lucky” to have salvaged the quantity of flakes she has found. After years of collecting fossils, she’s got a knack – at least by a manicurist’s metric. “I’ve found a few that are pretty big – the size of my fingernail,” she says.